Why Trump’s Culture War Lost the Suburbs – But Held the Senate

He’s got 43 percent of America in his hands.
Photo: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As of this writing, the Democratic Party is projected to win more than 30 House seats — and a greater than seven-point victory in the national popular vote, roughly the margin that Republicans claimed in the “wave” election of 1994. At a time of historically low unemployment and historically high consumer confidence, a historically large percentage of voters turned out to rebuke the party in power by a historic margin.

And yet, that party strengthened its grip over Congress’s upper chamber — and, thereby, over the federal judiciary for years (if not decades) to come.

Progressive commentators (like myself) have spent much of the past two years cataloguing Donald Trump’s most garish affronts to democratic ideals — his vilification of vulnerable minority groups, shameless corruption, compulsive mendacity, contempt for the press, and occasional enthusiasm for political violence.

But Tuesday’s results are a reminder that Trump is undermining popular sovereignty in the United States in a far more subtle (and less villainous) way — by building a Republican coalition that exploits the counter-majoritarian features of our political system with extraordinary efficiency.

This isn’t a new story of course; liberals have been bemoaning the “tyranny of the minority” since the Electoral College handed Donald Trump the presidency in 2016 (if not since gerrymandering handed the GOP the House in 2012). Further, the reddening of rural America is a phenomenon that long predates the Trump campaign.

But Tuesday’s results confirm that, in turning America’s culture wars into nuclear conflicts, the president has ripped the divide between America’s high-density areas, which are typically underrepresented in the Senate (and to a lesser extent, in the House) — and its low-density areas, which are typically overrepresented in Congress — wide open.

Trump’s psychedelically racist closing message — that the entire Democratic Party was trying to orchestrate an invasion of the United States by Central American gangsters and “Middle Eastern” terrorists, in an ill-defined plot to steal elections through mass voter fraud — did not play well with the public writ large. And it appears to have been absolutely fatal to many House Republicans who hail from suburban districts.

But it did energize the Trumpian proletariat. The president preached his apocalyptic nativism in Florida, Missouri, and Indiana — and Republican Senate candidates rode to victory on landslide margins in the exurban and rural parts of those states.

The efficacy of Trump’s gambit in those areas, combined with the fact that 2018’s Senate map was even more tilted towards rural states than the upper chamber as a whole, has allowed Mitch McConnell to expand his majority. And the Senate Majority Leader will use his new lease on power to continue confirming reactionary judges to the federal bench at a historic clip. It is possible (though not necessarily likely) that Democrats will be able to dislodge Trump’s minority coalition from the Senate in 2020. But wresting control of the courts back from the conservative movement could be a decades-long project — and in the meantime, far-right jurists could do grave damage to the prospects for majority rule, by both brazenly nullifying progressive legislation, and abetting voter suppression. (It is possible that Democrats lost multiple races Tuesday night due to the Roberts court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act).

Not all of Tuesday’s results fit neatly into the macro-trend of an urban-rural divide. In states with relatively high population densities, like Maryland and Massachusetts, moderate Republican governors won reelection handily. Meanwhile, in Kansas, and select low-density districts throughout the Plains and Midwest, Democrats scored some victories on the strength of popular dissatisfaction with the GOP’s underfunding of basic public goods. These aberrations suggest that the current extremities of geographic polarization aren’t inevitable. If Marco Rubio had won the presidency in 2016, the Republican Party might well have retained its suburban wing, while leaving a significant number of rural Trump voters demobilized or open to Democratic appeals.

But the birther king won. And he assembled a GOP coalition that’s relatively small for a major party, in national terms, with core constituencies that are likely to shrink as a percentage of the population in the coming years. But on Tuesday night, it proved well-distributed enough to entrench the conservative movement’s influence over the least majoritarian arms of the federal government. And that might just might allow the American right to nullify the prospects for progressive governance in the United States for the foreseeable future.